Quick Deficit, Lack of Big Hit Lead to Second Chillicothe (Mo.) Mudcats Loss in Row

St. Joseph hurler Stephenson fans 13 in six innings Monday in 7-3 victory

As reported to C-T/LCL

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — As so often happens in sports, the desperation a competitor or team feels when faced with a difficult situation and the adrenaline rush the individual or team uses as fuel for a push toward a specific goal, only to have it naturally fade when the goal – even if only an interim one – is reached, showed signs of having ensnared the recently-surging Chillicothe Mudcats again Monday.

A weeks-long effort to overcome an early- and mid-June slump having borne the fruit of reaching the .500 mark last Saturday, the Mudcats’ offense had a second-straight feeble performance Monday as the St. Joseph Mustangs posted a 7-3 victory at Phil Welch Stadium.

Shut out on two hits by two Clarinda (Iowa) A’s hurlers a night earlier, the Fish touched a trio of Ponies pitchers for a mere four hits in the MINK League contest shifted at mid-afternoon to St. Joseph, due to continued standing water on large swaths of Chillicothe’s “Chuck” Haney Field at “June” Shaffer Memorial Park Stadium.

The back-to-back losses that lacked greatly in hitting success squandered a good portion of the momentum the Mudcats (11-13, 10-13 MINK) had engendered with six wins in a row that got them to the break-even mark last weekend.

Falling to St. Joseph sank Chillicothe back to 2-1/2 games behind the second-place Mustangs (15-12, 13-11 MINK) in the league’s North Division standings.

Coupled with the Peak Prospects’ doubleheader sweep of 1-run wins over Jefferson City at Des Moines Monday, the Mudcats’ 4-games lead over the Prospects at the start of Monday had been slashed to 2-1/2 by day’s end. The teams still have six games to play against each other.

If enough drying occurs on Haney Field by Tuesday evening, Chillicothe will host the white-hot A’s again in a 7:05 p.m. game. The Mudcats have dropped all four meetings with Clarinda to date this season.

Clarinda won for the 21st time in its last 22 games Monday, edging Sedalia by a run on the road, where the Iowa team is 8-3. Paired with the Mudcats’ loss, Clarinda lowered its “magic number” for formally eliminating the Fish from the division-title race to six.

That Chillicothe again would struggle to hit well Monday wasn’t a surprise, considering the confluence of two factors.

The loss of two of the team’s most productive offensive players since the first of July has left the club both thin on thump with the bat and with lessened “depth” in its lineup.

The departures of Wes Brandsgaard, who owned the team’s best batting average at the time of his departure, and Max Huntley, one of four Mudcats position players selected for the recent league All-Star Game, forced head coach Tyler Hudlow to have all four of his currently-available middle infielders - none of which have been overly successful swinging the bat this summer – in the lineup in the Sunday loss at Clarinda and Monday defeat at St. Joseph.

When added to the weekend-only availability of Kansas University first baseman/outfielder Trevor Kardell and the injury absence of another middle infielder, Zack Cox (concussion), both of whom own batting averages in the .100s, Harlow currently has only 10 position players at his disposal. 

Of those 10, even before the two dismal outings early this week, only one of the group of four middle infielders had a batting average over .250. Tack onto that the .250 or below batting averages of three of the other six and there’s not much to construct a lineup with.

In fact, in the aftermath of Monday’s defeat, nary a currently-active Mudcats position player owned a batting average of .300 or above.

Although the middle infielders group has had limited offensive impact all season, it actually has been as involved as the rest of the lineup or more in generating what offense the Mudcats cobbled together Sunday and Monday.

At Clarinda, the two hits Chillicothe managed were one each by Petey Taylor and Zack Stewart of the middle infielders corps. At St. Joseph Monday, the group had three of the four hits – two plus a run batted in by Blake Falor and another one by Taylor.

The only hit by any of the players who were counted on at season’s start to provide the majority of the offensive punch was a meaningless first-inning single by Josh Swinehart.

With rematches with Clarinda and St. Joe looming the next three days – with a clash with Sedalia in between, Hudlow has no alternative but to throw the same guys in the lineup and hope someone or multiple players suddenly find their swings.

While the Mudcats’ offensive showings in the consecutive losses to start the week undeniably were dismal, they do merit at least a small caveat.

The starting pitchers they faced Sunday and Monday are among the league’s best this year.

After Clarinda lefthander Steve Spurgeon, Jr., shackled them in Iowa, righthander Mack Stephenson (5-0) overpowered them for 13 strikeouts in a 6-innings stint Monday. With his 13 Ks, the St. Joseph hurler assumed the league lead with 64 in 41 innings.

Stephenson ended the night with a 2.30 earned-run average for the season, while Spurgeon was 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA after suffocating the Fish.

Given their diminished offensive depth and the fact that Stephenson would be on the hill against them, the Mudcats were in trouble right away Monday when starting pitcher Logan Snow (1-2) allowed four hits, a walk, and three runs to St. Joseph before he recorded the first out of the top of the first inning.

The Californian then steadied and kept the Ponies at three runs until the fourth. However, with no income his teammates would inflict much hurt on Stephenson, a relapse to Snow’s first-inning form at the beginning of the fourth inning effectively sealed the Mudcats’ rate.

Just as in the opening frame, the first five St. Joe batters in the fourth reached safely – this time with two hits, two walks, and a hit batsman to increase the Mustangs’ lead to 5-0.

Entering with the bases full and no outs, British right-hander Myles Janson gave up a 2-runs single by Jake Grauberger on a high chopper of the head of third baseman Stewart on his first pitch, then locked in.

He threw four innings of 2-hits, shutout ball in, by far, his longest outing with the Mudcats to date. Cole Mammenga came on in the ninth and provided a scoreless inning of his own.

The excellent relief pitching actually provided Chillicothe with an opportunity to recover and make a game of it, but the lack of a big hit prevented a real rally.

Down 7-0 after four and seemingly on a potential path to a fourth 10-runs-rule loss of the season, the Mudcats were given a momentary jolt of offensive life by the middle infielders in the lower third of the lineup in the bottom of the fifth inning.

Taylor’s leadoff walk was followed by Falor’s opposite-way run-scoring double up the alley in right-center field. A throwing error by St. Joseph as it got the ball back toward the infield let Falor take third on the play.

Following a groundout on which Falor stayed at third, leadoff man Stewart’s roller to the shortstop drove the runner in from third as the throw went to first to get Stewart, making it 7-2, St. Joseph, after five innings.

A presumably-tiring Stephenson then walked three of the first four Chillicothe batters in the sixth to create a chance for one solid hit to get the Mudcats back within striking distance. That hit didn’t come, though, as he instead concluded his outing with his 12th and 13th strikeouts to strand three.

The first Mustangs reliever then surrendered an earned run via a leadoff walk by Payton Allen, two steals, and another Stewart groundout in the seventh, but, as in the previous inning, a man at third base with less than two outs expired there.

One more squandered golden opportunity for Chillicothe came in the last half-inning.

Trailing by four, the Fish got a second hit from Falor leading off, then consecutive walks to Allen and Stewart. With no out, arguably the team’s best three batters awaited with one or two swings of the bat capable of tying the game.

None came, though, as right-hander Will Hahn, also a MINK League All-Star, snapped back into form with a popup by Brewer, a Swinehart strikeout, and Sears’ popup to short center than ended the game.

Statistically, the starkest – and perhaps revealing – number of the game was the gigantic contrast in number of strikeouts. The three St. Joseph pitchers combined for 15 Chillicothe outs on strikes, while the Mudcats’ threesome fanned only one Mustang all game.

The “visitors” playing on their own field out-hit Chillicothe 11-4, yet also made the game’s only three errors.

Hitting-wise, the Ponies were paced by Grauberger’s two his and three RBI and Cole Slibowski’s three hits and RBI as they prevented the Mudcats from defeating them a fourth-straight time in July.